(Written January 2012) It took us twelve months, but my husband and I finally managed to go on vacation in 2011. Yes, we’d both traveled over 25,000 miles in those twelve months, but between evacuations, returns, and moving out of Cairo, none of it was remotely close to a vacation. We’d also had two vacations canceled (Tanzania in February and St. Croix in August), and by God or Allah or whomever would listen, we were going on vacation now!
The plan was to meet my mother in Prague (which was decided on after Googling “Christmas in Europe”) for a week. Our options from Kuwait were via Istanbul or Frankfurt. Having spent three years loathing the Frankfurt airport, we opted for Istanbul, and decided to stretch our vacation dollars by taking the long layovers so we could get out and get a taste of Istanbul.
What we didn’t really take fully into consideration was that we’d be leaving Kuwait at two in the morning, and arriving in Istanbul around six a.m. There’s not a lot of touristy things open at six in the morning in most cities, unless you’re at Disney. But we did our best to grab a few hours of sleep inflight, then donning our carry-ons we headed down to the metro from the terminal, and dove in to a Monday morning in Istanbul with great excitement!
We rode the metro a few stops, got off at Zeytinburnu where we stood with the working folk awaiting the tram that would take us, in a mere seventeen stops, to Sultanahmet. I confirmed with a young lady that we were waiting for the correct tram, heading in the right direction, and then when it arrived we squeezed on and grabbed a handle. At the time we probably thought that it was a bit crowded, but with stop after stop after stop introducing more and more people, the ludicrousness of our situation soon became apparent. My husband and I were each clutching a plastic handle attached to a pole above our heads; in our other hand we held our backpacks; and after the first four or five stops of additional people shoving in, we were now tummy-to-tummy, with feet twisted trying to find floor space, hands gripping desperately to the plastic handle, all the while with our fingers going numb from the fear-of-death-due-to-squishing grip. It was like standing 3D Twister, but with the added fun of potentially lethal compression. We’re definitely on vacation now! At one point I just couldn’t take it anymore and start to giggle. It was so ridiculous. I glanced over at the girl next to me, a mere 4.75 inches away, and just smiled at her. Luckily she smiled back. I guess this is just a normal Monday morning in Istanbul.
We finally disembarked at Sultanahmet with a hungry intake of air. It was cold and raining a bit, but that’s fine. We’re on vacation! Despite the Hagia Sofia Mosque being closed on Mondays, we still wandered the streets surrounding it, with visions of a hot tea and scrumptious breakfast in our future. We soon realized, however, that the proprietors here apparently see little point in opening at seven a.m. After wandering a bit more, we finally found an industrious and very tiny bakery that appeared to be open. We ducked through the small door and down the four steps. A man was standing behind a small display case, from which we picked out two fresh baked goods, which turned out to be delicious black olive buns and ordered two hot teas (which came piping hot and strong enough to make me wince).
With a gracious sweep, the owner suggested we sit at one of the tables. Staring down at them, I was having flashes of being Alice and mistakenly having eaten from the wrong side of the mushroom. The tables were about 18 inches off the ground and the stools were about a foot high. My husband, ever willing to try something new and exciting, tried getting on to one of the stools, but had to physically move another table away in order to pull the stool out. Having finally perched onto a stool, looking a bit like an elephant on a mushroom, he looked up at me and said, “Do you think these are for children?” I couldn’t stop laughing. It seemed odd that there’d be a bakery set up just for kids, but what did I know? (Later, as we continued walking around we saw these tiny tables and stools all over the place, so obviously Istanbulians have very strong knees and thighs.)
We finished up our breakfast, and headed back out. With the help of good-ole Google maps and my husband’s Smart Phone, we started wandering. We threaded through many back alleys and cobbled streets, up hills and down, and finally came to the Suleiman Mosque (built in the mid 1500s). After traversing around nine-tenths, we finally came to the front door. The mosque was beautiful; sitting high on the Third Hill (of Istanbul’s seven) surrounded by a formidable stone wall. And the interior was amazing, not just for its grand scale, but architecturally it was stunning, with the central dome reaching almost 174 feet into the air, supported by semi-domes, and decorated with Iznik tiles. Over the last 450 years, it has suffered through multiple fires and even an earthquake, so the structure we see today is from a restoration in 1956. But most noticeable to us (keeping in mind our mosque introductions were done in Egypt) was that it was spotless. I could have quite happily had a picnic on that carpet (but I didn’t). We came out the back door and sat down in the courtyard to put our shoes back on and decide our next move. While doing so we happened to see three cats racing across the courtyard directly toward us. I sat and waited to see what they’d do and one came running right up and jumped right on my lap, meowing loudly. She was very cute, but I wasn’t too keen on having her dirty wet paws all over me, so I picked her up and put her next to me, despite her very loud protestations, which I understood perfectly well, even in Turkish.
From here, we decided to head towards the Grand Bazaar and grab some lunch before heading back to the airport. I had glorious visions of doing some shopping in the Bazaar, and had forewarned my husband as to my plan; Turkish pottery was in my future, I just knew it. We finally found the entrance (or rather one of more than twenty apparently), and much like that mysterious wardrobe that lead to Narnia, it didn’t disappoint.
It is said that Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar is one of the world’s oldest and largest covered markets, with more than 58 interior streets, with Iznik tiled vaulted ceilings and thousands of shops. It’s labyrinthian, to say the least, but if I’m going to get lost in a sea of Turkish ceramics, just toss me a credit card and leave me be. We wandered a bit and then decided to just dive in. At random I chose one ceramic shop and did my best to not drool with delight. The variety of colors and styles was mesmerizing. It was like looking into a kaleidoscope, then getting to choose which jewels to pick. Upon expressing interest in the four and six-tile pieces, the proprietor started opening drawers upon drawers of hand-painted stunning mouth-watering tiles. With each one I sighed a little more, but then, seeing I wasn’t quite ready to fall just yet, he started unwrapping newly arrived pieces. And that was my downfall. There I found my love; a six-tiled blue-green depiction of the Tree of Life. He saw the light in my eyes and now began the bartering. I let my husband take the lead on this, and I have to say that I was fairly impressed. He managed to get the guy down 25%. Of course, he said later that unless you have the guy following you down the street finally agreeing to your stated price, you probably could have done better. I didn’t care, it was stunning and I was delighted. We didn’t have enough cash on us, so my husband wandered off to the ATM and I waited. In my love-haze I didn’t realize that that was a mistake, but after ten minutes I soon realized what I’d done. I’d sent my husband off into the labyrinth without his sense of direction (me). The proprietor and I kept a look out for him on any of the surrounding streets, and finally I said I had to go look for him, so I headed out. But no luck. I came back to the shop and waited some more. Finally, he showed up, coming from the back streets. “I got lost,” he said. “Then I asked someone for the tree of life ceramics, but he took me to his brother’s shop. But then someone else knew who I was looking for and brought me here.” Sigh. All is good. We paid, packed our well-wrapped tiles into our carry-on and took a taxi to the airport, heading off to Prague.
A mere week later, on yet another Monday (so still no Hagia Sofia Mosque for us), we returned. This time we only had about four hours, so we decided to forego the metro and tram, and just take a taxi straight to the Bazaar where we’d do a little more shopping and exploring. Unfortunately, our taxi driver somehow missed the turn he wanted, even after backing up on the street (ahh, Cairo memories), so with a lot of Turkish mutterings he finally parked in front of a large mosque and gestured for us to get out.
“Where’s the Bazaar?” my husband asked. “Just there!” he said with great annoyance. “Just five minute walk.” He even wiggled his fingers in case we were unclear of what “walk” meant. Feeling a tad frustrated, we relented and got out. My husband whipped out his trusty SmartPhone and we began following it like a diving rod. At first we were rather miffed at the driver, but it soon became apparent that he did us a wonderful favor. He had dropped us off behind the Ottoman Baroque Nuruosmaniye Mosque and to get to the Grand Bazaar we had to walk through the back alleys and local markets and at every turn we were confronted with wondrous sights. From the chains-only store, to the tassels-r-us store, to the naked mannequins and empty shelves store, to the life-size pirate and odd looking monkey toilet roll holders store. I was in seventh heaven. We finally made it to the Bazaar and stopped for a quick bite in a small café near the central hub. My husband was thrilled to be able to order a hot tea with rum (quite unusual in an Islamic country) and we ate our vegetarian pide (kind of like a folded pizza) then headed out. Our intention was to find our favorite ceramics seller again, Mr. Selim, and after a few stops along the way to oogle at the hat sellers and spice piles and fresh made Turkish delight, we found him and were greeted like long-lost cousins (spending lots of money tends to elicit this response). So, like any happy squirrel with shiny objects, I started my gathering. By the time we were done, we had six more tiles and eleven bowls. And the only thing that stopped me here was the fact that nothing else could fit in our, now four, carry-ons.
We made it to the airport with only one issue. Failing to follow our own advice, we did not get exact change before the ride, so when we asked for change from the driver, he suddenly pretended we’d agreed on a higher price. Knowing we’d been stupid, and therefore scammed, we berated him and left. At the x-ray screening I was pulled aside and asked to open my backpack. I had lovingly wedged the twelve tiles in it (six from our first trip, six more from our second) and suddenly the security agent wanted to unwrap all of them. I literally begged her not to; they would never survive the flight without the careful wrapping Mr. Selim had done. She looked unmoved and carried one pack off to her supervisor, but then returned and said it was okay. Whew! I’ve never felt like flinging myself on ceramic tiles before, but I was close.
So over our two mini-visits, we’d only been in Istanbul for about ten hours, but I was hooked. It was love at first sight, or rather, after the tramride. I don’t know if I can explain my love (can we ever?); it was like Cairo, but cleaner and more compact. The colors and activity were mesmerizing and I realized that’s what I miss most in Kuwait. There are no wacky things to see, no piles of dizzying colors, no wandering back alleys to find hidden gems. But knowing that Istanbul is a mere four hours away gives me hope that we’ll meet again. And this time I’m bringing a titanium suitcase and a larger backpack.